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Preparing for the Possibility of Union Organizing



In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) providing employees at private-sector workplaces the right to seek better working conditions and designation of representation without fear of retaliation. Once a workplace is represented by a union, management has an obligation to negotiate with the union and bargain in good faith over mandatory subjects such as wages, hours, benefits and safety practices. See Employer/Union Rights and Obligations.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the federal agency that enforces the NLRA. See What HR Professionals Should Know About the NLRB.

It is important for an organization to decide its position on union representation as a matter of business strategy, rather than wait until a union has begun an organizing campaign. If the organization's objective is to remain union free, then it should lay the groundwork for achieving that goal. The organization can accomplish this task by:

  • Assessing its vulnerability to union organizing.
  • Developing a strategy for communicating the company's philosophy regarding third-party representation that reaches both current and new employees.
  • Training all levels of management to lead and manage in a manner that supports the organization's objectives and insisting on their commitment to that approach by means of performance measures.
  • Developing a culture that stresses open communication, encourages employee participation and engagement, and demonstrates the values of fair treatment, respect for the individual, and personal and professional integrity.

It is especially timely for employers to consider whether they are poised to respond appropriately to a union organizing attempt. Under current labor law, a union needs at least 30 percent of workers signing unionization cards to get an election scheduled with the NLRB. Efforts to bypass the secret-ballot election process and require an employer to recognize a union once a majority of employees have signed unionization cards, often referred to as "card checks", have been ongoing for years. See NLRB General Counsel Calls for Union Organizing Through 'Card Check'.

Determine Organizational Objectives Regarding Union Organization

An employer should decide at the highest organizational level what its objectives are with respect to unionization and what it is willing to do to achieve them. Determining these requires consideration of the employer's particular circumstances, including industry, location and availability of a qualified workforce. Some organizations that operate in an area or an industry that is heavily unionized conclude that union representation may be a competitive advantage in recruiting employees and attracting customers or clients. (With the exception of certain industries—notably construction and entertainment—an employer is not in a position to become unionized on its own initiative. That decision rests with the relevant group of employees.)

The organization must also consider the cost of unionization. In addition to management's loss of flexibility under a collective bargaining agreement, union representation may lead not only to higher wages and benefits but also to increased overhead and a company's loss in value on the open market compared with nonunion counterparts.

If the objective remains to do whatever is necessary to stay union-free, the organization needs a plan that includes:

  • Communication with new hires and continuous communication with current employees.
  • Leadership and management training.
  • A conscious effort to create a culture and work environment that is unlikely to stimulate or support widespread interest in unionization.

Assess Vulnerability to Union Organizing

Positive employee relations is the hallmark of union avoidance. An organization can assess its vulnerability to union organizing by examining metrics, such as turnover and exit interview results, by taking into account feedback delivered in various employee meetings, and by directly surveying managers, supervisors and employees. See Managing Employee Surveys.

Employers should benchmark data to compare competitiveness and fairness in wages and benefits. Employees who feel they are paid and treated fairly are less likely to seek representation. See Benchmarking HR Metrics.

Employers should avoid hasty decisions made on the basis of only one or two sources but rather consider information from as many avenues as possible. In addition, organizations should beware formulating an opinion strictly on the basis that all is quiet; the workforce may be exceptionally silent while an organizing campaign is actually underway.

Develop a Communication Plan

Beginning on an employee's first day of work and periodically thereafter, top management should clearly communicate the company's philosophy with respect to unionization and explain exactly why the company believes third-party representation is unnecessary and risky. See What can management do during a union campaign?

In the absence of a message from the company, employees will hear only one side of the issue. Unions today have done an excellent job of taking advantage of the Internet. A union organizer may be just a click away on myriad websites. See HR's Role in Forming a Rapid Response to Union Activity and Viewpoint: How to Prepare a Labor Relations Rapid-Response Team.

Develop Leadership and Management

Strong leadership and good management are keys to remaining union-free. Nothing affects an organization's culture more than its management team. Employers should train the management team intensively and extensively to understand its role and impact, and to blend both leadership and management skills in effectively building the kind of culture that satisfies employees. See Training Presentation: Responding to Union Organizing.

Align vision and values with systems and structures

It is critical to articulate the organization's vision and values and to align its systems and structures to reflect them. An employer cannot say it values respect but continue to allow managers or supervisors to treat employees in a disrespectful manner. Congruence between what senior management says and how managers and supervisors behave is essential to building a culture of trust and integrity, and it must be obvious at all levels of the organization and be reinforced on a daily basis.

Adopt collaborative leadership style

In contrast to a top-down, command-and-control leadership model, managing and leading with a servant-leadership mentality fits well with the strategies calculated to withstand a union organizing attempt. Servant-leadership emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy and the ethical use of power. The individual is a servant first, having made a conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others, not to increase his or her own power. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals within the organization and to increase teamwork and personal involvement. See What Is Servant Leadership? A Philosophy for People-First Leadership.

Serve as role models

Albert Schweitzer once said, "Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing."1 A company's executives and managers define its culture every day by the example they set—so organizations should make sure they set the right example because employees will follow it. Daily interactions among supervisors/managers and employees set the tone, affect the level of trust, and influence employees' perception of organizational integrity.

Serve with integrity

Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson said "If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters."2 Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. For an organization that creates a culture of integrity and respect for the individual, the rest will come more easily, flowing naturally from the behavior of leaders and managers who have developed the habit of doing the right thing. See SHRM Tune in Tuesday – "You Can't Outsource Integrity".

Develop Culture

Building and working tirelessly to maintain a strong people-centered culture will help create a positively charged and balanced environment that is conducive to employee loyalty, productivity and engagement. As a byproduct, it will prepare the organization to deflect or to respond appropriately to a union organizing campaign. See Understanding and Developing Organizational Culture.


Unions tend to provide employees with a feeling of security that is still meaningful to employees today. Establishing an appropriate disciplinary review process and building a culture of fair treatment helps the employer cultivate a similar feeling of security. A review process may be simple—review by the HR department—or more elaborate—an employee appeal board.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the various types of internal dispute resolution procedures. Whatever approach the organization adopts, employees must be confident in the employer's commitment to fairness and feel as though they have somewhere to go if they feel they have been treated unfairly.


The trend toward informality, casual dress and casual demeanor in the workplace should not be interpreted to mean that respect is of diminished importance to employees. Unions' democratic and populist traditions convey respect for the individual; well-run labor organizations tend to capitalize on these values. Accordingly, HR must ensure that managers and supervisors understand the importance of treating all employees with the same respect they themselves expect from peers and superiors. If they do so, an organization is well on its way to making the prospect of third-party representation a nonissue.


Some employees view unions as a way to have a voice in the workplace—a reasonable conclusion if they feel powerless. Employees need to feel that they are being heard and have a degree of input and participation in decisions that affect their working environment. Managers too often forget this need. An employer can give employees a voice by hosting brown-bag lunch meetings with groups of employees, roundtable discussions, department meetings, shift meetings and all-employee meetings. Participation leads to engagement. The format is not important as long as employees have an opportunity to participate and receive feedback on the outcomes and the employer does not unlawfully deal with the groups as it would a recognized union.

Wanting to feel included and knowledgeable about workplace issues affecting them rates high among employees. They want relevant information on compensation, benefits, and organizational and business changes, and their effect on the workforce. Organizations should equip employees with facts because they may know surprisingly little. When given the opportunity to be part of the process, employees will become engaged and take ownership of the process of continuous improvement. They become part of the solution instead of standing on the sidelines looking for and pointing out the problems.

Employers should create opportunities for managers and employees to interact and engage. Union representatives are especially adept at listening to and empathizing with employees and soliciting their grievances. Managers need to have these same skills, plus the ability to follow up and respond to employees rather than reflexively defending themselves or the company. They should be able to admit mistakes when appropriate and to demonstrate understanding and awareness of the challenges employees face.

Related Resources

HR Q&A: How can we prevent a union from organizing in our company?

Sample Policy: Union Free Policy Statement

SHRM E-Learning Course: Positive Employee Relations & Union Awareness (Basic)

Express Request: Preparing for Union Organizing




1Simpson, J B. (1988). Simpson's contemporary quotations. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

2Nieman Watchdog. (n.d.). Panel discussion: The presidential campaign. Retrieved from